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A remarkable essay by Freeman Dyson on "Our Biotech Future"

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  • A remarkable essay by Freeman Dyson on "Our Biotech Future"

    Freeman Dyson is an British-born American physicist and mathematician, famous for his work on quantum mechanisms, solid-state physics, nuclear weapon design, serious theorizing in futurism and science fiction. He has written an article for the New York Times Book Review that is remarkable for its breadth and depth. I won't/can't do it justice in my comments but will provide some highlights of what he wrote. Just the language and the concepts that the man introduces in his essay are amazing.

    1. The 20th Century was the century of physics. The 21st Century is the century of biology. Dyson makes a strong argument for this both in terms of investment, workforce, and output. He also points out that biology is more important than physics, due to its economic and ethical consequences.

    2. The domestication of biotechnology. I love this concept. Before it becomes applied, technology is like an animal in the wild. Once domesticated, the animal is different from what it is in the wild, perhaps more subdued and less virulent, weaker and blinkered.

    3. Genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations. This thought did not occur to me until I read Dyson's essay. It is not genetic engineering that people distrust. It is the corporations.

    4. User-friendly biotechnology. He pointed out the incorporation of biotechnology into everyday phenomena will make it user-friendly. For example, genetically modified tropical fish, flowers, and reptiles. Regarding the latter, Dyson speaks with the firm experience of a grandfather, pointing out the the "main problem for a grandparent visiting a reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake."

    5. An explosion of new living creatures. Dyson foresees biotech games, not played on computers but played with real eggs and seed. "The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be need to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious."

    6. A new biology. For much of the past century, scientists have been struggling with a reductionist approach to biology, to try to explain all its complexity through definition of genes and molecules. Dyson attributes a new biology to Carl Woese, somebody whom Dyson obviously admires, that "what is needed instead is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization."

    7. Horizontal gene transfer. Woese pointed out that there was a pre-Darwinian period, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. This is something that most of us in biology don't think much about but it is true. Bacteria, for example, transfer genes to other species without mating or evolution. That is how antibiotic resistance spreads so quickly from species to species. The earlier and more primitive life is, the more likely horizontal gene transfers occur.

    8. The Darwinian interlude. Dyson points out Darwinian rules (what he calls the Darwinian interlude) dominated biology only for 2-3 billion years and that evolution probably slowed down evolution considerably. As I have said in another topic, evolution is very inefficient to removing undesirable genes (Source).

    9. We are now entering a new epoch when cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. It runs thousands of times faster than Darwinian evolution. We are now reviving horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species.

    10. Living organisms are patterns of organization rather than collections of molecules. This new approach is not only being applied to "bees and bacteria, butterfly and rain forests, but also to sand dunes and snowflakes, thunderstorms and hurricanes. The non-living universe is as diverse and dnynamic as the living universe, and is dominated by patterns of organization that are not yet understood."

    Wow, as I said, the breadth and depth of this man's vision is breathtaking. It is a worthwhile essay to read.